This sparkling collection of four plays illustrates the wisdom, range and wit of Bernard Shaw. Each play has its strengths and weaknesses, but Arms and The Man and Candida seem to outshine The Man of Destiny and You Never Can Tell. Nonetheless, the quality gap is subjective and small between these colourful entertainments.
While the casual reader may enjoy the texts for their simple pleasures, it is interesting to note how serious themes are touched on in the course of the comedies. For example, there is a reflection on the class structure and the family in one play. In another of the narratives, there is a caustic attack on the confusing contradictions of the English national character:
“There is nothing so bad or so good that you will not find Englishmen doing it; but you will never find an Englishman in the wrong. He does everything on principle. He fights you on patriotic principles; he robs you on business principles; he enslaves you on imperial principles; he bullies you on manly principles; he supports his king on loyal principles and cuts off his king’s head on republican principles. His watchword is always Duty; and he never forgets that the nation which lets its duty get on the opposite side to his interest is lost.”
Most philosophy cannot be put in the simplistic category of bad. Although some philosophy has been misused by fascists, that same philosophy has sometimes provided inspiration to harmless artists or interesting intellectuals. However, Roger Scruton has proved that philosophy can possess few redeeming features. His odd argument in favour of fox-hunting is an example of wicked thinking.
The essay is not light on research. This is in part because the conservative thinker received assistance from experts with various aspects of the piece. Despite this seriousness, the work does not address the critical questions one might expect. Instead it assumes that fox-hunting can be viewed in terms of the management of wildlife.
It is correct that debating fox-hunting can generate more heat than light in urban settings. And it is true that the issue of social class can shape perceptions of the activity. But it is wrong to suggest that respect for foxes can justify the cruel pursuit of them for pleasure. Nor does the aesthetic of the hunt make the following statement relevant to meaningful modern ethics:
“From Homer to Sassoon the art and literature of hunting exhibits an almost religious respect for the quarry…”
“So, to begin with, workers need to reclaim a sense of pride and social worth.”
With this patronising statement, Owen Jones revealed that he had an attitude about what was good for working class people. Having conducted copious interviews with the great and the good, some of their entitlement had probably rubbed off on the young man. Mr Jones didn’t want working people to be misunderstood, but he assumed a priori that ordinary people lack pride.
Nevertheless, Mr Jones was aware that many workers have pride. Unfortunately for him it was not always the type of pride which appealed to him. This is because it was patriotic and could be manipulated by the right. However, he made insufficient intellectual effort in this text to get to grips with what was happening. When researching support for the appalling BNP, he failed to discover a single one of their voters. Hence the reactionary opinions of a section of working people became a matter of mysterious speculation.
It is thus entirely predictable that Jones has turned against Jeremy Corbyn. He is a commentator of the virtual world who spends too little time listening to the views of working people. He likes to generate a debate, but does not understand loyalties which may be hidden in his polemical narratives.
T. S. Eliot can be perceived as an elitist poet. His work often seems remote from the mundane aspects of life. This is in part because of his explicit religious commitment. However, the complex language which the poet employed is also something of a barrier to the understanding of many readers.
Nevertheless, one of his remarkable creations breaks with the conventions of his famous poems. This specific work was composed during the Hungry Thirties. Eliot might not have endured the horrors of unemployment, but by 1934 he had been involved in sectors like publishing and banking. These prosaic experiences could have helped him to appreciate some of the anguish associated with the Great Depression. He wrote:
“The lot of man is ceaseless labour,
Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,
Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.”
This text is a thorough investigation into the nature of political and economic power in the modern UK. Composed by a gifted journalist, it takes an empirical approach to understanding state and society. It is illuminating because it benefits from the adoption of a historical perspective.
In practice, the book builds on the insights the author apparently displayed in Anatomy of Britain. This means that the text explores the impact of neoliberalism on British institutions. Nevertheless, the argument basically eschews political or economic theorising. The emphasis is placed on the concrete and abstraction is neglected. Despite this choice, dismay at the excesses of the Third Way is evident.
The fact that things could have turned out differently haunts the pages. A disappointment with the rule of Tony Blair is repeatedly underlined. A quote from Aneurin Bevan serves as a poignant reminder of the calibre of politicians that the Labour Party could once draw upon:
“The ordinary man in Great Britain has been spending his life for the last couple of generations in this will-o’-the-wisp pursuit of power, trying to get his hands on the levers of big policy, and trying to find out where it is, and how it was that his life was shaped for him by somebody else.”
The fictional Gordon Gekko simply said “greed is good” and Western neo-liberalism has been linked with the promotion of greed. Victoria Moffatt has discussed the ethos of “private good, public bad.” However, the reality is that neo-liberal discourse has to avoid simple greed promotion if it is to prosper.
It is in this context that we can understand affluent entrepreneurs making philanthropic gestures. They might not want to pay their fair share of taxes, but they do not want to be remembered as greedy.
Nonetheless, it is in the sphere of politics that we can see the cleverest justifications for greed. Greed is an ugly word which clashes with the ideals of many people. Major religions have not always embraced greed. Hence the need for contemporary British politicians to use the language of aspiration. Ambition seems less reprehensible than greed. The dream of a meritocracy does not sound as unpleasant as the reality of class division. We can all dream of “doing better” and what could be greedy about that?
These seven essays make for entertaining reading. It is pleasant to be in the company of a critical mind. They demonstrate Virginia Woolf at her most disputatious. This is because she was often responding to irritating examples of patriarchal attitudes. Nonetheless, she retained her delicate touch in some of these pieces.
The feminism of Woolf was complex. She had some sympathy for working class women, but her main focus was to encourage women to succeed in the bourgeois professions. Nor did she perceive all the values of the female aristocracy as outmoded. Her ideology was very much of its time.
Woolf was on solid ground when she defended the creativity of women against the sexist assertions of Arnold Bennett. She pointed out that women had made massive progress as soon as they had enjoyed access to education and indicated that in antiquity there was at least one great female poet. For once, her passion exceeded the quality of her prose. Nevertheless, she put her explanations for inequality across with some precision:
“The fact, as I think we shall agree, is that women from the earliest times to the present day have brought forth the entire population of the universe. This occupation has taken much time and strength.”